ISIS Says One Of Its Key Leaders Was Killed. Is It True?

Aug 31, 2016
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Islamic State has announced the death of one of its key leaders, a founding member of the terrorist group, named Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. He was one of the architects of its propaganda strategy and oversaw its attacks overseas. The Pentagon confirmed yesterday that Adnani was a target of a strike yesterday, a U.S. strike. This morning, Russia jumped in claiming on the official Facebook page of its Ministry of Defense that Russian airstrikes had killed Adnani. The Pentagon, in fact, has not confirmed that Adnani is even dead. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, has been following the story and joins us now. Good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us something about Adnani the person.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what makes Adnani different from a lot of ISIS members was that he had real ties to al-Qaida in Iraq, the precursor group to ISIS. He's Syrian, and he was one of the first foreign volunteers to fight in Iraq against the U.S. He has ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who launched al-Qaida in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. And like the head of ISIS, Adnani spent time in Camp Bucca, the U.S. military detention facility in Iraq. So he has quite an ISIS pedigree, and symbolically at least that makes this a big loss for the group.

MONTAGNE: And he has been known as the spokesman for the Islamic State. But as we've just suggested, he was much more than that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, he was much more than that. The bloody videos that ISIS puts on the web are a huge part of its recruitment strategy. And Adnani was in charge of that. He was also in charge of these external operations, basically an overseas attack arm. He was very good at finding disaffected young Muslims in the West, luring them to Syria for training and then sending them back home to attack.

And the external operations unit answered directly to him, and he answered directly to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The terrorists who were behind the November 13 Paris attacks on cafes and concert halls, they were a product of that operations unit.

MONTAGNE: And why was he so effective?

TEMPLE-RASTON: He was very smart in setting up language-specific living arrangements for foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. So, for example, all the French speakers were together, and that made for a lot of unity in the group, which helped ensure that attacks would actually be carried out. More recently, he changed course as ISIS began to lose territory. And he began asking Muslims in the West to attack right where they were. Now, we have a recording that he's thought to have made back in May. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABU MOHAMMED AL-ADNANI: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: So what that message is saying is during the holy month of Ramadan, you need to mark this holiday or the celebration by attacking wherever you are. And it appears some people in the West took him up on that because there were a rash of small attacks across Europe this spring and summer.

MONTAGNE: If his death is confirmed, what does that mean for ISIS?

TEMPLE-RASTON: If he's in fact dead, that would take one of ISIS' most important leaders off the battlefield. But there are real mixed feelings about whether this so-called decapitation effort, killing top leaders, really works in dismantling a terrorist group. I mean, ISIS is particularly bureaucratic, almost like a corporation. So the idea is that even if a key leader is killed, the enterprise can continue. Traditionally, these kinds of deaths disrupt operations for a short period of time. And then the group replaces a leader and they continue on. And I think that's what'll happen here.

MONTAGNE: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

TEMPLE-RASTON: NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.